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Formal idealism/haptic realism

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Jacob Stegenga.

I propose that we redirect the realism debate away from the question of the reality of unobservable posits of scientific theories and models, and towards the question of whether those theories and models should be interpreted realistically. This makes it easier to include within the realism debate sciences of relatively large and observable items, as are many branches of biology. In computational neuroscience, models are normally interpreted as representing computations actually performed by parts of the brain. Semantically, this interpretation is literal and realistic. Ontologically, it supposes that the structure represented mathematically as a computation (i.e. a series of state transitions) is there in the brain processes. I call this supposition of a structural similarity (homomorphism) between model and target, formal realism. This stands in contrast to an alternative way to interpret the model which I call formal idealism. The view here is that whatever processes exist in the brain are vastly more complicated than the structures represented in the computational models, and that the aim of modelling is to achieve an acceptable simplification of those processes. Thus, the success of the research is more a matter of structuring than of discovering pre-existing structures.

Ultimately, the realism debate is motivated by curiosity about what it is that the best scientific representations have to tell us about the world: is this thing really as presented in the model? Thus, I argue that the contrast between formal realism vs. idealism is a good template for framing the realism debate when discussing the implications of sciences of extremely complex macro and mesoscopic systems, such as the nervous system. Formal idealism does not suppose that the structures given in scientific models are fully constructed or mind-dependent, but that there is an eliminable human component in all scientific representations, due to the fact that they can never depict the full complexity of their target systems and as such are the result of human decisions about how to simplify. Another way to describe the ineliminable human component is to say that models and other scientific representations are the product of the interaction between the human investigator and the target system. I use the sensory metaphor of touching (haptics) to describe this investigative process. Formal idealism is complemented by a haptic realism (Chirimuuta 2016) which acknowledges that models are the products both of constraints imposed by nature, and the constructive activity of scientists.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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